Saturday, 17 February 2007

Identity bookcover; faber and faberReview: Identity, Milan Kundera (1998)

The cover of this book shows a woman wrapped in a bath towel, holding up her hair. It is an intimate moment. Perhaps she is getting ready to meet her lover. Perhaps she is getting ready to go to work. Perhaps this is a scene we have ourselves witnessed.

In a way, it is an appropriate illustration of this lovely little book, because the story it tells could have happened to any one of us. Living in a Western, wealthy, liberal society. Perhaps Kundera had one of us in mind when he wrote it.

I suspect he did. I also suspect that he is still laughing from the preciousness of the joke that he has played on us. Because this book has something of the joke about it. It also resembles an essay. A study of forgetting and remembering.

Like an essay, it moves with crisp changes of direction. Each short section develops the assertions and conclusions of the preceeding one. There is an ideal logic at work that pulls us along with it, until we realise that it could be us he is talking about.

Chantal and Jean-Marc are lovers. As with any pair, there are inequalities and moments of distance that challenge banal assumptions about relationships. Because she is older than him, and once said that she felt it (possibly not in so many words, but that is what he understood), he takes pity on her. With stealth, he starts writing anonymous letters, concealing his identity by altering his handwriting.

Chantal necessarily wonders who the letters are from. Eventually she suspects Jean-Marc.

There comes a point where her suspicion and the fact of his writing converge as real things. At this point, another person enters their lives and the ensuing chaos forces the two apart. By some magic, the meaning of which only Kundera can know, they head for London.

But do they actually leave Paris on the cross-channel train that departs from the Gare du Nord? And how is it that Chantal meets up with her work colleagues in the station?

Stripped of their everyday identities, the two lovers are exposed to the inexpressible desires of the world. All the while we accompany them, feel their fear, contemplate the facts that cause them to wonder, and aspire to reach the conclusion they individually, and collectively, desire.

The feelings evoked by this book, although intimately bound up with everyday realities, are timeless and transcendent. This is a fabulous, jewel-like creation, to be savoured. Recommend reading in one sitting. It's short enough.


Miao said...

I love The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera. Heard he has been nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize several times but he has yet to win it.

footix24 said...

Am a huge fan of Kundera, and he's one writer who never fails to write faster than I can think and comprehend.
Would love to shake the hand of this fantastic writer, but I've read he's an immensely private person.